The Lady between a rock and a hard place
Muslim Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh from Myanmar in the past three weeks to escape the army’s clearance operations. Human rights groups claim it is a “scorched earth” policy — reminiscent of the military’s traditional “four cuts” strategy for dealing with other conflict zones. About 3,000 houses have been razed to the ground, according to local activists.
The international hue and cry has become deafening. This week many world leaders will raise the issue of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohinyga at the UN General Assembly. Only last week both UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the Security Council urged the Myanmar government to end the violence against the persecuted Muslim minority.
This was the second meeting of the council on the issue since the current crisis erupted at the end of August. Two further high-level meetings will take place in New York during the gathering of world leaders at the United Nations this coming week, according to UN officials.
Last week, Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi announced she was not attending the session, to concentrate on urgent domestic matters — taken to mean the Rakhine situation. Vice President Henry Van Thio, accompanied by the National Security Adviser Thaung Tun, are going in her place.
Thaung Tun is a career diplomat, who is well experienced in defending Myanmar’s reputation and deflecting censure at the UN — a task he has handled since the time of the military regime.
In the past few weeks, since the Kofi Annan Commission made its recommendations, a number of world leaders have advised the Myanmar government to implement them as a matter of urgency. This is in fact the corner stone of Aung San Suu Kyi’s strategy for Rakhine reconciliation, according to government insiders. But the security situation in Rakhine has prevented this so far.
“The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint, and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians in the course of carrying out their legitimate duty to restore stability,” said a statement from Aung San Suu Kyi’s office last week.
However, Aung San Suu Kyi will address the nation in the next day or so outlining the government’s roadmap to reconciliation in Rakhine state, according to government sources. As part of this plan, a “Ministerialled Committee to monitor the progress of the implementation of the recommendations will be established speedily, and an Advisory Board comprising eminent persons from home and abroad will also be constituted to assist the Committee in its work,” according to Aung San Suu Kyi’s office.
But the Lady — as she is commonly known — is between a rock and a hard place, according to diplomats and analysts based in Yangon. “She does not have complete freedom to move, when it comes to the situation in Rakhine,” a diplomat told the Bangkok Post. It is the army commander who is calling the shots, he added.
The civilian government and the army are in a power sharing arrangement, established by the constitution drawn up by the previous military regime, before they stood down.
Under the constitution, the military appoints 25% of MPs in both houses in the national parliament and all 14 regional assemblies. The army appoints one of the three vice-presidents, and three ministers in the cabinet — Border and Home Affairs and the Defence minister — including the police.
“With its control over the three key power ministries, the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military) and it’s minions in the GAD [General Administration Department — the local bureaucratic administration] are running rings around the National League for Democracy’s chief ministers, who find themselves ‘home alone’, cut out of decisions and relegated to ribbon cutting ceremonies,” long-time Myanmar observer, and regional head of the Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson told the Post in an email.
The situation in Rakhine state is further complicated by the local Buddhist population, who are stridently anti-Muslim. In fact, much of the looting and burning of Rohingya homes is actually carried out by Rakhine villagers, who accompany the police and military on their “clearance operations”.
Conflict between the Buddhist population and the Rohingya — whom they refer to as Bengalis, as does the government — goes back many decades. This discrimination dates back to before Independence.
Much of the Myanmar population agrees with the official view that the Rohingya are not citizens of Myanmar, but illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many Rohingya families have been in the country for generations.
This has left Aung San Suu Kyi in an impossible position in terms of public opinion — she cannot be seen to openly support the Rakhine Muslims, for fear of alienating the majority of the country’s dominant Myanmar ethnic group, the Bamar. This antipathy has intensified after the attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) last October and again in August.
So instead of using her moral authority, she remained silent on the issue, as far back as the first contemporary outbreak of violence in 2012.
Now she has the added complication of having to work with the army. After the election, the two leaders had to find ways to work together. She had the mandate, the generals the real power.
“Since the very first days of the NLD government the two real leaders — the Lady and the General — have had a clear understandings on how they should work together,” said a former senior military officer. “It’s a mutual recognition of their de facto leadership: Min Aung Hlaing leads in security matters and Aung San Suu Kyi the rest,” he explained.
The problem is there is no arena for the two to discuss overlapping concerns as with the current situation in Rakhine. The National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) is the only meeting ground, but the military holds the numbers: six out of 11 seats are military appointees.
These include the president, the two vice-presidents, the army commander and his deputy, the three ministers appointed by the army, the foreign minister and the speakers of the two houses of parliament.
The NDSC has never met during the NLD government, according to senior government officials. Although there has been two quasi meetings on Rakhine — one last October and the other shortly after the ARSA attacks.
The army is still pushing for a state of emergency to be declared in Rakhine, which only the NDSC has the authority to approve.
It also has the power to suspend democratic government. Aung San Suu Kyi — who is resisting the military’s efforts to militarise Rakhine — is loath to call it for fear she will loose the upper hand.
Indian Muslims shout slogans as they hang a sandal across a portrait of Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, during a protest rally against the persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority in Kolkata, India, on Sept 11.